Austin was buzzing last night… with food and wine… Chapeau bas Diane!

Above: The social media was orgiastic last night at Diane Dixon’s excellent Somms Under Fire event at the W Hotel in downtown Austin. That’s top Austin food blooger Miso Hungry (center) with her better half and photographer @HopSafari.

Not only is Diane Dixon one of sweetest and most generous souls I’ve met in the nearly three years I’ve lived in Texas, she is also the first lady of Texas food and wine. Her events — like the Somms Under Fire dinner and competition, held last night at the swank W Hotel in downtown Austin — bring together the best and the brightest of the Texas food and wine scene. They offer young food and wine professionals the chance to interact with top names in the field and they give the public an opportunity to meet food and wine celebrities and get a peek behind the scenes.

Above: Top Austin sommelier June Rodil took home yet another title last night. That’s her with presenter and local wine celebrity in his own right, Devon Broglie.

When I left New York City back in 2007 and then abandoned my beloved California in 2008 to come to Texas, many of my well-meaning friends expressed their concern: what will you drink?

Well, I’m here to tell you that we get some good vino out here in Texas, too!

My highlight was this 1996 Mongeard-Mugneret Grand Échezeaux that somehow made it to my table. Still very tight but what a thrill to drink a glass of that wine…

I was also geeked to see and taste the 08 Rosso di Montalcino by Il Poggione, which showed great last night… always a great value for real Sangiovese…

There were roughly 10 bottles of wine — samples from the competition — on each table of eight persons and even the VIP tickets for the four-course dinner were under $60! A pretty good value IMHO for the experience…

Chapeau bas, Diane, for another great event and for another chapter in your noble quest to inform the next generation of food and wine lovers in Texas! I enjoyed myself thoroughly…

And when I woke this morning to read that Esquire has called my friend and client Tony Vallone (Houston) one the top Italian restaurateurs in the U.S., I couldn’t help but think to myself, we’ve got a pretty good thing going down here in Texas, don’t we?

Groovin’ to Radikon (FINALLY!) in Austin

Above: The rainy 2002 harvest was not a great one in northeastern Italy and so the Radikon family decided to bottle their entire crop that year in 500 ml bottles. Because they made so little wine, the unusual format (for them) allowed them to release a great number of bottles. I’ve tasted the wine a number of times now and it’s stunning — a great example of what a great winemaker can do in a challenging vintage.

Over the weekend, I took Tracie P out to dine at Austin’s newest “white table cloth” dining establishment, Congress, a swank and high-concept dining experience with a wildly ambitious menu (sure to be the hottest table to snag during the upcoming SXSW music festival when a tide of rock ‘n’ roll celebrity rolls over this central Texas town).

I was THRILLED to experience our friend June Rodil’s much anticipated list and OVERJOYED to find one of my favorite wines in the world: Radikon (the first time I’ve seen it here in Texas).

Above: “Wild Arugula, Artichoke Confit, Mozzarella, Holiday Grape Agro Dolce” at Congress. I wish folks would abandon the “truffled olive oil” mania around here. It’s one of the world’s greatest misunderstandings. But I have high hopes for high-concept dining in future at Congress.

Most people (including the Radikon family) point to Radikon as the winery that started the loosely knit orange wine movement in Italy when they began to ferment their Ribolla Gialla with skin contact in the 1990s. I tasted at Radikon back in September of last year and am a HUGE fan of these wines.

Above: A photo I shot of Radikon’s 2010 Ribolla Gialla, not long before harvest. Heavy rains in northeastern Italy during the fall don’t bode well for this vintage — in many ways, similar to the 2002 vintage. The fruit was beautiful (as you can see) but last-minute rains during the harvest ruined a lot of the crop.

I disagree entirely when people say that these wines aren’t for everyone. In fact, everyone SHOULD taste these wines so that they can begin to explore the magic of the place where they are made and the amazing people who make them — founders of the Natural wine movement in Italy and some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met in this business.

The 2002 Ribolla Gialla (in 500 ml bottle) was brown and crunchy and salty, with bright acidity and loads and loads of ripe and dried apricot and peach flavors… utterly delicious. What a thrill to see these wines on a list (at a fair price, btw) in a town that — ready or not — needs to learn what great Natural wine can be. Chapeau bas, June!

We drank the Radikon after dinner, with the chef’s cheese selection. With dinner, we ordered this 1999 (!) Mersault by one of my favorite Burgundy houses, Grivault. Normally, a wine like this would be out of our range but June has it at a more than reasonable price on her list (a reflection of her pricing strategy, sharing good deals she receives with her clientele). Lots of wonderful savory flavors in this wine, which has had more than a decade to evolve (and has many years ahead of it)… RUN DON’T WALK…

According to The Wall Street Journal, “the Brookings Institution recently found the capital of Texas to be the country’s most popular destination for the 25-34 demographic.”

I’m glad to say that we also have some kick-ass wines and kick-ass sommeliers ready to turn on all the hipsters arriving daily in the Groover’s Paradise!

Pairing Japanese with Italian, naturally, and June Rodil’s faboosh new list

uchi austin

Above: We paired 2008 Santa Chiara by Paolo Bea Saturday night with our sashimi et alia at the new Uchiko in Austin (friends and family soft opening). Not to be down with the dogma, but few would argue with the street cred of this natural wine. (Are you following the 32 Days of Natural Wine?)

Tracie P and me paired some Italian with Japanese on Saturday night during the soft opening (ongoing) at Austin’s new Uchiko, offshoot of the wildly successful and popular Uchi. The 2008 Santa Chiara by Paolo Bea — with its saltiness, crunchiness, and acidic nervousness (to borrow a phrase minted by Scott) — was brilliant with the myriad flavors that flowed like a red tide over our tongues.

Do you need me to tell you that the food at Uchiko was great? Nah… everyone knows why the Austinite Uchi brand has enjoyed such favor in this city on a river. In fact, the Uchi (now) family of restaurants stands apart as one of the few truly world-class dining destinations in Central Texas (beyond the apotheosis of barbecue in the form of a small Texas town known as Lockhart).


Above: Tracie P and me with the reigning “best sommelier in Texas” June Rodil (center).

What I am here to tell you is that the truly amazing June Rodil has put together a simply faboosh list there, with wines from the Jura, from the Loire, from Italy, and even some interesting Californians that might surprise the Cabernet-loving patron who thinks that Silver Oak goes with just about everything.

Chapeau bas and mazel tov and muchísimas gracias, June!

We had a fantastic time and awesome food and wine Saturday night, with great service (despite the kinks yet to be worked out in this newly christened kitchen).

But the best part of the evening was listening to 80s hits when we got home and Tracie P’s karaoke performance of Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know,” complete with television remote control microphone and air guitar solo…

Super Texans: tasting Texas with the Austin Dream Team

Above: The Austin Dream Team. From left, Craig Collins (Central Texas Sales Manager for Prestige Cellars), Devon Broglie (Southwest Regional Wine Buyer for Whole Foods Markets, which was founded in Austin), and June Rodil (recently crowned “best sommelier in Texas,” sommelier at Uchi in Austin, a world-class and cutting-edge Japanese restaurant in land-locked central Texas).

This was no run-of-the-mill focus group. It was an Austin Texas USA dream-team of young sommeliers gathered by the PR firm that reps the Texas Department of Agriculture to taste some Texan wines blind.

Folks in Texas are serious about their wine (Texans love to drink locally) and when it comes to marketing of local products, they don’t kid around: these top young somms had been asked to give their honest no-holds-barred opinions of the wines (each flight included a ringer, not from Texas) to help gauge which wines to present to food and wine writers and pundits etc.

Frankly, I haven’t taken Texan wines very seriously since I moved here nearly 10 months ago but — as Franco rightly reminds me — rules are rules: when you taste blind and you taste something you like, you have to admit it (even when you weren’t expecting to like it) and frankly, I tasted more than one wine I liked in yesterday’s degustation.

And there was another surprise as well.

I had never heard the term Super Texan before and when I wondered out loud why so many Texan wineries are Italophilic as opposed to Francophilic (like their Californian counterparts), one of the more interesting theories was proposed by June, who noted that Texas is a predominantly Republican state and has a historic distaste for Francomania.

Above: Also in attendance was wine writer David Furer who came to town especially for the tasting and who was lucky enough to taste Tracie B’s farro salad the other day at our impromptu Labor Day picnic.

In the first flight of red, we tasted a number of wines made with Sangiovese (monovarietal or blended) and varietal expression was clearly evident. The wine that impressed me the most was the Llano Estate Newsome Vineyards High Plains Viviano, a “Super Texan” blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese. The wine was real, it was elegant, it had natural acidity, honest fruit, and genuine freshness (although I’m not sure I would reach for it at $40 a bottle).

In the same flight, however, was a wine that the panel didn’t seem to like because of a green, herbaceous quality. When asked my opinion (and frankly, I was out-classed by these top somms in their superior ability to taste and describe blind, ubi major minor cessat), I asked the other participants “to cut it some slack,” as it was also one of my favorites in the flight. Anyone who knows me wouldn’t be surprised at the laughter in the room (Devon and Craig and I have tasted a bunch of times together) when it was revealed that my ugly duckling was Italian.

But to my great surprise, it was a wine that I never would have thought I’d like, 2006 Chianti Classico by Badia a Coltibuono, a high-volume winery that has enjoyed wide success in the U.S. thanks to aggressive, intelligent marketing. According to the website, 170,000 bottles of this wine are produced every year, but, frankly, I could really taste place in this wine: it had that characteristic Sangiovese plum note and I liked its food-friendly herbaceousness. For $25, I like it. There you go: rules are rules and there’s a lot to be said for tasting locally.

In other news, another taste of Texas…

Tracie B snapped this slice of Texan life last night outside the Broken Spoke where I played a gig. I gotta say that I love living in Austin… not that the lovely Tracie B has anything to do with it… ;-)